In common with all types of oak framed building construction, exposed beam ceiling construction has experienced a dramatic surge in popularity. Many contemporary oak framed houses and other new bespoke oak structures feature exposed oak beams as a standard design feature. Similarly, homeowners carrying out renovation projects are also realising that previously hidden structural oak beams can form an attractive focal point to a room. If you are thinking of redesigning your home using oak beams, a brief glance through any online gallery will yield a wealth of ideas. Since oak trusses and beams have been used in construction for centuries, there are hundreds of period creations to provide inspiration.
However, as renovating or creating an exposed beam ceiling can be quite an undertaking, it is worth being aware of some of the pitfalls.
Pros and Cons of construction
- Oak has a naturally warm, comforting appearance giving an unconscious feeling of a homely, cosy living space. In the case of an exposed beam vaulted ceiling open to the roof itself it can be a source of heat loss. As the insulating layer above the ceiling and the pocket of air within the attic are gone, heat can easily diffuse through the roofing material. This could lead to higher energy costs from heating a larger space that heat can readily escape.
- An open beam ceiling, especially one that exposes the trusses or rafters within the roof space has obvious visual impact. In a home that already features exposed framework it continues the style and theme for an impressive whole. In especially large living areas it can create a stark, empty look that could be overbearing. It is worth considering the finished look and the atmosphere this will create.
- The addition of an exposed ceiling, especially throughout a home, can add serious resale value to your house. This is especially true of oak beams, as it’s reputation as a premium construction material adds to its perceived value. The flipside of this is the cost of installation itself. Even renovating existing beams can be an expensive undertaking and installing new ones will usually require professional help. The materials and work must be of a high standard to create a worthwhile end product and this can prove expensive.
Having assessed these points, you will have a better idea of whether an exposed ceiling is the best option for your home. Further to this, we will look at four of the most commonly asked questions about open ceiling construction. These will give a more rounded view of what the process entails and some of the technical issues you may experience.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What are exposed ceiling beams called?
There are several terms used interchangeably to describe the physical members used in an exposed beam ceiling. This can be confusing to those not familiar with construction terms. A beam by definition is ‘any large piece of timber long in proportion to its thickness and prepared for use’ which is, admittedly, fairly vague. Triangular roof trusses consist of three beams, the longer tie beam at the base and two shorter angled beams, known as rafters. The rafters connect at the apex to support the ridge beam which runs the length of the roof. Under floor beams which support the weight of the floor are more commonly known as joists. Since it is possible to have a closed ceiling with exposed beams that supports a floor above (for example on the ground floor), these could also be referred to as joists.
2. What size should ceiling beams be?
For purely decorative oak ceiling beams, this depends on the size of the room. They should be proportional to the room size so they don’t appear too small or large for the space. For a higher ceiling, the beams should be deeper in appearance and the longer the room, the wider they should be. For a room with a standard eight to nine foot ceiling, five inches wide by three inches is typical. Of course, for existing beams that appear too small (but are structurally sound), oak beam cladding can be fitted to make them appear larger. For a new build, the company designing the oak frames will incorporate beams that are large enough to support the weight of the structure. If you are fitting load bearing beams yourself, it is advisable to consult an architect or engineer for advice.
3. How far apart should beams be on a ceiling?
This is largely a matter of personal preference. Again, if they are a structural element this will have been incorporated into the original design of the house. For decorative purposes, they can be spaced from two to eight feet apart. The size of the room will again dictate what looks best and possibly cost as the closer the beams, the more beams you will need. Four feet apart is a fairly standard spacing to avoid the ceiling looking too cluttered or empty.
4. Which way should ceiling beams run?
Load bearing oak joists usually run across the shortest dimension to a room, to distribute weight to the load bearing walls. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, shorter beams cost less so it the most economical choice. For particularly long rooms, it can be difficult to find one piece beams long enough to run end to end. Wood beams made from multiple pieces of timber will have weak points at the joints, so their strength will be diminished. For decorative beams, this is not an issue as they are not required to bear any loads. If they run across the width of the room, it can make the room appear to be wider. Beams running the length of the room will emphasise its length, in this way the beam direction can alter perception of room dimensions. An exception to this is what is known as a coffered ceiling. Cosmetic panelling is added to structural beams and smaller beams added in between them. This creates an attractive, regular grid pattern with recessed ceiling panels between the beams. These are the ‘coffers’ that give the design its name.
Although we have touched on the basic elements of exposed beam ceilings, this is by no means an exhaustive discussion. At Hardwoods Group we are specialist timber merchants with a wealth of knowledge on all elements of oak based construction. We can supply wholesale timber of all sizes for your own ceiling project or bespoke design oak frames with any feature you desire. Call us for further information, we will be happy to help.
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